In 2003, Michael Lewis wrote a book about an 18-year-old who failed in the Majors after being drafted 23rd overall in the 1980 draft. But when put in charge of drafting young players, players that he saw himself in, he excelled.
That New York Times bestseller was recently made into a movie, one nominated for seven Academy Awards. Directed by Bennett Miller, Moneyball was a strategy invented by famous statistician and Baseball Prospectus author Bill James and Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane.
Beane was the failed prospect in 1980. The strategy he used in drafting players for the A’s in 2002, however, would change the game forever. Teams and their front offices are still imitating Beane’s tactics today. Simply put, Beane started a new trend in the game of baseball.
The Oakland GM showed the world that you could win games and contend for championships on a low-budget payroll. This came at a time when the New York Yankees were dominating the league, winning or competing for World Series titles in the four years prior. The Yankees, of course, did this with a payroll of more than $125 million.
The 2002 A’s, on the other hand, finished the season with 103 wins; 20 of them in consecutive games. It’s an American League record for a team with a $41 million payroll. The remarkable part: they did it after losing three of their best players to bigger-market teams (Jason Giambi to the Yankees, Johnny Damon to the Boston Red Sox and Jason Isringhausen to the St. Louis Cardinals). They had the AL MVP and Cy Young Award winner on that team, though, in Miguel Tejada and Barry Zito, respectively.
Beane used a few key statistics while drafting players. He was interested in players who had high on-base percentages and a high amount of runs scored. Beane’s theory was simple: you can’t win games if the players don’t get on base or score runs.
Beane took a risk in ditching three stars in the offseason. However, he was rewarded with a playoff team, and other Major League clubs took notice. Since 2002, the New York Mets, New York Yankees, San Diego Padres, Boston Red Sox, Washington Nationals, Arizona Diamondbacks, St. Louis Cardinals, Toronto Blue Jays and Cleveland Indians have hired sabermetric analysts. The Red Sox front office even attempted to hire Beane after his successful ’02 season. So as you watch Moneyball on your DVR or iPad this winter, don’t forget the real-life story of what the movie is based on. Comparable to Rocky or Rudy, the 2002 Oakland Athletics accomplished unimaginable feats on the field. Their 103 wins produced from a dismal $41 million is truly an underdog story.